Criminal Justice

Convicted as a Teen, Jailed for 10 Years, Mario Rocha Now Hopes to Be a Lawyer

After a 12-year legal odyssey, a 29-year-old California man who has long maintained his innocence of a 1996 murder is free to move on with his life. In his future, he hopes, is a college degree and a career as a lawyer.

Saying that they could not now locate witnesses who testified in the original murder case that Mario Rocha, then 16, had opened fire at a party in northeast Los Angeles where a high school student was killed and another individual was injured, prosecutors are declining to retry the case, reports the Los Angeles Times. Others say Rocha ran for cover when shots were fired, according to his defense counsel, and thus couldn’t have been responsible for the crime.

Rocha, who was initially convicted as an adult and sentenced to 35 years, served 10 years in prison before he was released on bail after an appeals court found that he had been inadequately represented by counsel at trial. A Catholic nun who was impressed by Rocha’s creative writing work in a juvenile detention center, before he was tried and convicted of murdering Martin Aceves, a 17-year-old honors student, spearheaded what became a high-profile effort to win Rocha’s release, according to the Times and KCAL, a local CBS News affiliate.

Rocha was represented on a pro bono basis by Robert Long, now a retired Latham & Watkins partner, as he sought his freedom, as well as attorneys Michael Adelson and Joseph Gutierrez.

He contends that Los Angeles police detectives sought to build a case against him, rather than determine the truth. But “it isn’t cut and dried in any shape or form that he didn’t do this,” prosecutor Bobby Grace tells the Times, outside the courtroom.

“Before you is someone who many, many … believe is factually innocent,” attorney Michael Adelson told Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor yesterday.

“There’s really no question in my mind that he’s innocent,” Adelson says of Rocha. His clients hopes to go on to college and law school, now that he is no longer facing a potential murder conviction, Adelson tells KCAL.

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